By Sam Le
Northwest Asian Weekly
All across the world, including in the Pacific Northwest, Vietnamese communities gather together to celebrate Tết, otherwise known as Vietnamese Lunar New Year. Through the bright red decorations, baskets full of fruits, and giving of lucky money, people wish each other prosperity and goodwill for the upcoming year.
“There are many reasons why Tết is so important to the Vietnamese people. For some, it is a celebration of the new hope and freshness of spring. For others, it is the excitement of turning a year older with everyone else. But for all Vietnamese, it is about connecting and hanging out with friends and family and overindulging in the food and sweets,” shared Dr. Tam Dinh, Commissioner of the Washington State Commission on Asian American Affairs.
As one approaches the celebrations, the presence of traditional Tết dishes is widely observed, with the two most common, bánh tét and bánh chưng.
“We always have bánh tét and bánh chưng, every new year. My grandma used to make them every year, it takes time to make them,” shares Chau Huynh, a community member of the Vietnamese community in Everett. Mrs. Huynh shared that her household stocks up annually on these traditional treats, as her children enjoy it so much.
According to Vietnamese folklore, bánh chưng has its origins when the sixth Hung King holds a cooking competition among his 20 sons, in order to pick an heir. Lang Lieu, the king’s 18th son, presented bánh chưng— amid the other more elaborate and exotic dishes. It humbly focuses on the simplicity of sticky rice stuffed with pork and buttery beans formed into the shape of a square. Bánh tét follows suit, only differing in the shape of the dish, being round and stretched out. For what they lack in complexity of ingredients, they made up in meaning.
“Bánh tét and bánh chưng represent the sky and earth. The ingredients are simple, but it takes a long time to make. Nowadays, they are sold at stores and people buy them instead of making it,” said Huynh.
Both cakes are most commonly sold at Vietnamese stores during Tết, but can also be found at many community and religious gatherings and celebrations throughout the year. Annually, Tết in Seattle has shared the story of Tết to thousands during its annual celebration at the Seattle Center, where both bánh tét and bánh chưng are featured.
Also, at Tết in Seattle, local Vietnamese restaurants come out to sell their favorite Tết food. Julia Le, a TIS Planning Committee Member, shared, “One thing is that our culture always focuses on food and family. Food brings everyone to the table and give space for the family to come together. Bánh tét and banh chưng were shared and featured during this year’s eating competition. We also have many vendors share a variety of food.”
Phở Bắc Súp Shop and Buns and Baos were two of the vendors featured this year. Phở Bắc Súp Shop offered everyone’s favorite pho and Buns and Bao offered a fusion twist cuisine for the audiences in attendance. With the wide variety of cuisines, Tết in Seattle provides a space where all families and communities can share a meal and learn about the Vietnamese culture.
“Love is often shown through food in the Vietnamese culture. Therefore an abundance of food is placed as an offering at the altars of beloved ancestors and generously offered to visiting relatives and friends come bearing gifts and paying their respects. Tết is a time of hope, joy, and love. A happy time that Vietnamese hope will carry throughout the year,” shared Dr. Dinh, on the emphasis of food during Tét.
Tết holds significant value within Vietnamese communities. As celebrations happen world-wide, the tale of bánh tét and bánh chưng continue to live on as families come together.
Sam Le can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.